Ali De Leon pauses at a growing memorial with her son Leo and her dog Vinny across the street from the Chabad of Poway synagogue in Poway, Calif., on Monday, April 29, 2019. (Photo: AP)
The parents of a 19-year-old college student suspected of attacking a Southern California synagogue said Monday that they are shocked and saddened that “he is now part of the history of evil that has been perpetrated on Jewish people for centuries.”
John T. Earnest’s parents said they raised him and his five siblings in a family, faith and community that rejected hate.
“Our son’s actions were informed by people we do not know, and ideas we do not hold,” the parents said in a statement, which didn’t include their names.
A gunman on Saturday burst into the Chabad of Poway near San Diego on the last day of Passover, a major Jewish holiday that celebrates freedom, and opened fire with an assault-style rifle, killing a woman and wounding a rabbi and two others.
“How our son was attracted to such darkness is a terrifying mystery to us, though we are confident that law enforcement will uncover many details of the path that he took to this evil and despicable act,” the statement said.
Earnest’s parents, who are cooperating with investigators, said their sadness “pales in comparison to the grief and anguish our son has caused for so many innocent people.”
Earll Pott, a family attorney who issued the statement, said the parents will not provide a legal defense for their son, who will likely be represented by a public defender. They asked for privacy and do not plan to make additional comments until the criminal case is resolved.
The FBI said Monday that it received tips on a threatening social media post about five minutes before the attack.
The tips to the FBI’s website and phone number included a link to the anonymous post but did not offer specific information about its author or the location of the threat. The FBI said employees immediately tried to determine who wrote the post, but the shooting occurred before they could establish his identity.
One of the tipsters told The Associated Press that he called the FBI tip line at 11:15 a.m. Saturday because the post linked to a manifesto that said the author was responsible for a mosque arson in the city of Escondido last month. He says he found online that had the mosque attack had happened and feared the new threat was real.
The tipster, who refused to provide his name because of security concerns, said the call with the FBI lasted four or five minutes and the shooting happened soon after. He described the FBI as quick and professional and said he doesn’t know what they could have done.
The shooting happened around 11:30 a.m., and police arrested Earnest moments afterward. He is being held on suspicion of murder and attempted murder.
The online manifesto written by a person identifying himself as John Earnest was an anti-Jewish screed posted about an hour before the attack. The poster described himself as a nursing school student and praised the suspects accused of carrying out attacks on mosques in New Zealand that killed 50 people last month and at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue that killed 11 on Oct. 27.
About 100 congregants were worshipping when the gunman killed Lori Kaye, 60, and wounded the synagogue’s rabbi, Yishoel Goldstein; Noya Dahan, 8; and her uncle Almog Peretz.
Goldstein said he was preparing for a service and heard a loud sound, turned around and a saw a young man wearing sunglasses standing in front of him with a rifle.
“I couldn’t see his eyes. I couldn’t see his soul,” Goldstein said. He raised his hands and lost one of his fingers in the shooting.
And then, Goldstein said, “miraculously the gun jammed.”
In the moments that followed, Goldstein said he wrapped his bloodied hand in a prayer shawl and addressed congregants gathered outside the building, vowing to stay strong in the face of the deadly attack targeting his community.
“We are a Jewish nation that will stand tall. We will not let anyone take us down. Terrorism like this will not take us down,” Goldstein recalled telling the community.
Authorities said Earnest had no previous contact with law enforcement and may face a hate crime charge in addition to homicide charges when he’s in court later this week. He was being held without bail.
Police searched Earnest’s house in San Diego and said he was also being investigated in connection with an arson attack on a mosque in nearby Escondido, California, on March 24. California State University, San Marcos, confirmed that Earnest was a student who was on the dean’s list.
There were indications the AR-type assault weapon might have malfunctioned after the gunman fired numerous rounds inside, San Diego County Sheriff William Gore said. An off-duty Border Patrol agent fired at the shooter as he fled, missing him but striking the getaway vehicle, the sheriff said.
Earnest called 911 to report the shooting, and when an officer found him on a roadway, he “pulled over, jumped out of his car with his hands up and was immediately taken into custody,” San Diego Police Chief David Nisleit said.
The rabbi described Kaye as a founding member of the congregation and said he was heartbroken by her death. He said the attack could have harmed many more people had the shooter turned toward the sanctuary where so many were praying.
“Lori took the bullet for all of us,” Goldstein said, his hands wrapped in bandages. “She didn’t deserve to die.”
Friends described Kaye as giving, warm and attentive to community members on their birthdays and when they were sick. A wife and mother, she loved gardening and made delicious challah for her family and friends, said Roneet Lev, 55. Her funeral is planned for Monday.
When the gunfire erupted, another worshipper, Shimon Abitbul, said he immediately placed his 2-year-old grandson on the floor and waited for a break in the shooting to grab the boy and sprint away.
Abitbul, who was visiting from Israel and staying with his daughter and her family in Southern California, said he was still coming to grips with the carnage.
“All of us are human beings,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you are Jews or Christians or Muslims.”
Peretz, who was wounded in the leg, said he turned around after hearing gunfire and saw the shooter standing by the door. He grabbed his niece by the hand and carried out another child.
He then saw a group of children and got them running, “I tell them, ’go this way, go this way,” said Peretz, who is visiting from Israel.